So I was awoken at 3:00 this morning by Ken, telling me that the bus was breaking down and that we were going to have to turn back to Los Angeles to get it fixed. This was immediately followed by the words: “We might have to skip San Francisco all together.”! By 7:00 I was still trying to process what exactly was occurring and I started making phone calls informing the people whom we were supposed to meet with throughout the course of the day that we weren’t going to be in the city until at least 2:00 pm. However, given the stressful nature of the hours of re-planning, the morning was speckled with incredible music, conversations, card games and just an overall stillness of being awake without running off the bus in the usual fashion of this trip.
After reworking our plans and realizing that we weren’t going to have a rental van, we decided to take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) across the city. Regardless of the fact that we had to pay for transportation, riding public transportation all day (in a city that advocates living “green”) thoroughly excited me.
Our day began at the airport, where we jumped on the BART to 16th St Mission. This stop was about ten blocks away from the Castro district, wherein the majority of San Francisco’s gay population resides. As we walked up towards the district from a less-safe area of town, I noticed the gradation from working-class restaurants and shops to higher end locations, surrounded by Gay Pride rainbow flags and a slue of ethnic restaurants and stores.
We decided to break into groups to have different lunch experiences and converse with some of the locals. (I chose sushi!) As my miso soup arrived and I recognized I had no spoon, we leaned over to the man sitting next to us and asked, perfectly displaying our touristy-selves and uncultured nature, if we were supposed to just sip it out of the bowl. He slightly chuckled in answering yes, and continued to ask us where we were from. As our conversation developed, we began to detail the encounter we had had in Salt Lake City with the LGBT film festival and how we had been inspired by the energy of the gay rights movement throughout the country. He quickly became excited in our perspectives on the matter and we carried on a 45-minute discussion, learning that he was a professor at a college in Oakland, and had traveled outside of the US for the majority of his life. When we asked him what it meant to be an American, he explained how due to his travels abroad, he didn’t feel like he truly had a sense of American identity. So in slightly altering the question, we asked what the majority of people in other countries thought being an American entailed. These were the responses we received:
- Africa – idealized American (land of honey and milk, gold streets) false illusions that America most likely perpetuates through media and other displays of global power
- Europe – more cynical view on America (especially France and Germany), not placed on a pedestal like with Africa
- Japan – most xenophobic country, but is also in love with America due to closely tied histories, still attain a “Hollywood” version of American identity – something they strive for
Through this breakdown, I realized a multiplicity of thoughts: 1) America displays what it believes others believe it to be quite accurately (an application of Cooley’s looking glass self upon national identity if you will). 2) In thinking about how similar these perspectives were in comparison to what I expected Africa or Europe or Japan to display, I began to question where these reflected identities come from, and further, how they are perpetuated throughout society and then internalized and projected by our own citizens upon the identities of other countries?
After lunch, we regrouped and took the BART to Montgomery Station, in the North Beach area. As we walked through the streets, we passed the financial district of San Francisco, including the Transamerica Pyramid (tallest building in the SF skyline). We continued North, heading towards Vesuvio Café, City Lights Bookstore, and the hotel San Remo– all of which were key locations in the early development of the Beat Generation, which included figures such as Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burrough, and Neal Cassady – and then continued to the Beat Museum directly down the street.
An interesting thing that I’ve been experiencing on this trip has been the self-embodiment of “tourist” that we’ve been analyzing. This feeling was in full form as I stepped up the stairs into the Poetry room in City Lights Bookstore. This room was where these literary geniuses would read their poetry, and as I walked in, camera in hand and unknowledgeable, I felt as if I was walking through Graceland, following the course that led to some spectacle that lent itself to idolism and remembrance. I felt the slightest animosity from the ‘locals’ in the room, who were reading some of the more obscure pieces of literature as our group flocked around multiple copies of Howl.
While we were in City Lights, my brother – who is currently going to Berkeley University in San Francisco – joined our group for the rest of the evening. Seeing him was absolutely incredible, and definitely provided that sense of home that I’d been missing.
Our next step was just a block away at the Beat Museum, which was founded about three years ago and displayed the personal collection of a Beat historian who decided to present the history of these visual artifacts to the larger public. As we walked around the museum, I noticed many similarities in presentation to other iconic historical places we’d witnessed. I felt momentarily troubled by this drawn parallel as I fought the association of the Beats to cultural ‘heroes’ like Elvis. While Elvis remains a key idol in the eye of the American public, I hold the work and influence of the Beat generation to much higher standard.
The idea of these individuals recognizing a fallacy in the way American literature was written, and then creating an entire movement to inspire a new form of writing in academia and expression in biography moved me to such emotional depth. It was through realizing the strength in their foundational work that allowed my discomfort to be quieted; and I believe I recognized a connection between some of the students’ participation in stepping outside of the four walls of a classroom, and this historical idea of progress and (r)evolution in regard to the experiences we’re currently attaining through embarking on this journey as we continue to alter the system through which education traditionally occurs.